Why go prone, you ask? Why lay down and use your hands when you can sit, stand or kneel and use a paddle? Why get water in your face and subject yourself to such a workout? Read on.
Bellyak—The next big Summer Paddle Sport
Thank you to Back Country Skiing Canada! for this rad review of our Bellyaks! Watch the video below, and check out the FULL REVIEW HERE.
By Adam Masters,
The middle Ocoee in Copper Hill, TN is one of the most classic class III runs in the whole country featuring continuous fun rapids, tons of playspots and an easy roadside shuttle. I have been kayaking the middle Ocoee since 1994, and have run it hundreds of times. I developed my love of hand paddling on the Ocoee and as soon as I had the first plastic bellyaks in 2012 I haven’t looked at my kayak again.
There are no shortage of beautiful waterways to bellyak on than in our home region of Western North Carolina. Not only do we have killer BBQ and more craft breweries than we can count on our fingers and toes, but we also have more than 400,000 miles of waterways in the whole state. You better keep them a secret, but here are our top 5 WNC rivers to paddle:
1) Section 8 of the French Broad
The French Broad River is the second oldest river in the world, which makes it older than my great, great, great granddad. And he’s old. So old in fact, that it has developed a certain smell only found in this particular waterway. Although the whole river is great to paddle, Section 8 is one of our favorites.
This is a 5 mile (ish) section downstream of Marshall NC, about 30 minutes north of Asheville NC. Section 8 begins below Redmond Dam, and takes out at Barnard (the put in for the most famous section: Section 9). Section 8 is rarely traveled, but is the perfect section for new paddlers, or those looking for a family friendly float. There are no real ‘rapids’ on this section, but what makes it fun is that there is consistent gradient from put in to take out, making for a nice ‘moving sidewalk’ of current. There are also many eagles and otters that live along this mostly unpopulated stretch of river. If you’re also on the hunt for somewhere to stay, one of the French Broad River Paddle Trail campsites is on this section.
2) Section 9 of the French Broad
Are you seeing a pattern here? This section has been written about before, and is the location for the evolution and development of Bellyak more than any other stretch of river. This is a great section for beginning whitewater training, with an instructor. In the four mile stretch of river between Barnard and Stackhouse, there are multiple Class 2 and 3 rapids that offer many different ways to go down, from easy straight down the middle to maze like runs that require precise navigation. At higher levels this section can be quite pushy due to the amount of volume coming down the river.
For Section 9 rapid by rapid, check out our Where to Bellyak: French Broad Section 9 post here.
3) Lower Nolichucky
This section of river, beginning at USA Raft in Erwin TN and ending at Jackson Love Bridge, is a perfect section for those looking to taste a little whitewater action in a perfectly clean and pristine river. The Lower Nolichucky is approximately one hour north of Asheville, and flows year round. Contact the folks at USA Raft to book your trip. They have expert guides, hot showers, and beautiful accommodations right along the river.
4) Nolichucky Gorge
On the books to be named a Wild and Scenic River, the Nolichucky Gorge flows through the deepest gorge in the Southeast. Over 8 miles of amazing whitewater that will delight and test the most avid of paddlers. Rapids such as Quarter Mile, surf spots like Jaws, and miles of beautiful scenery in a pristine gorge make for an amazing day on the water. For those inexperienced, having the experts at USA Raft guide you down is the way to go.
5) Big Laurel
40 minutes north of Asheville is the best section of whitewater Bellyaking known to man. The Big Laurel River. Flowing out of the shadows of Mount Mitchell, the Big Laurel is a tight, low volume creek popular with fisherman that flows into the French Broad River below Stackhouse. The Big Laurel has a trail running along the side which allows for easy scouting and portaging if necessary. Rapids such as Triple Drop, Suddy Hole, and the Narrows provide exciting, technical rapids in a beautiful setting. Check with the folks at Laurel River Store for good levels. Levels from 3” to one foot are ideal. Over a foot and the spice level goes up exponentially. Great surfing right at the put in at Cabin Wave.
By Adam Masters, bellyak Founder
There is no better feeling than having your face inches from the water while watching the river rush by. Going fast while sitting still. Prone river surfing causes time to stop, and everyone remembers their first time better than prom night. For most, it’s the only anniversary that matters. Most impressions of surfing conjure up Gidget standing effortlessly sliding down a perfect TV wave with nothing but palm trees and coconuts for miles. Those of us lucky enough to not go to bed every night stuck to sandy sheets have to look for our own endless wave, the waves created by the timeless forces of rocks, water, and gravity.
Standing in the shadow of so much gnar, Section 9 of the French Broad is often overlooked as a beginners-only run. Only 45 minutes from Asheville and with a quick shuttle, Section 9 is good at almost all levels. It is a popular run for SUP, bellyak, and all other manner of river craft, due to the year round flows, beautiful scenery, and good play. The multitude of read and run rapids don’t hurt either.
The reason I love the Play 35 is the same reason Bill Wunderlich, 2 time Tennessee State heavy weight wrestling champion loves the Play 45: it just fits. When I first cruised on a Bellyak I made it down the Class 4 waters we were paddling with a huge smile on my face. I’m sure that was the only pretty thing that day because I had only a taste of what was possible. Now, 2 years later, my bellyak and I have been getting down right nasty. While the barrier to entry is low on a bellyak, the level that you can take it athletically seems to be limitless at this point. Taking my game past the point of river running and basic belly surfing required me to tap into my friends named agility, strength and finesse.
Let’s Talk About Feelings
This is what I really love. I love how agile the Play 35 is. If you give it a little nudge you can go places together. The boat is designed to be stable enough to inspire confidence but with an agility derived from the advances in hull design of modern freestyle kayaks. The ample rocker allows the boat to spin and pivot with ease. I knew it had potential because on my first ride it spun me and took me places I never intended on going. Once I made the commitment to work together with my Play 35, I was hooked.
Confidence and communion with the river is something I have been able to achieve in a greater way than I ever could in my kayak. Perhaps it’s because my body covers more surface area on the water. Perhaps it’s how I”m able to respond to the river rather than just reacting to every single current that comes at me.
Going Fast Sitting Still
Nothing says New-Age spiritual like surfing a wave in a bellyak. One of my favorite pastimes is surfing at staging eddy on the Ocoee, watching creekers in full faces practice their roll in the eddy next to me. And as I write this I can’t help but laugh a little because in a few years our experience today will seem so underwhelming by the standards of what will be created tomorrow.
Like jumping curbs back in your huffy bike glory days thinking you were all that therewas in the world only to learn that mountain biking was already a thing and you were living a lie.
I have to admit I used to be a little bit of a freak about getting a workout in and I’ve always dreamt of legitimately having fun and being fit at the same time. I like ball sports but they still hurt when I’m tired, but have you heard of Bellyak Fitness? My idea of Bellyak Fitness is taking my bellyak whitewatering and playing as hard as I can only to find out when I am done that I am completely exhausted, my hip flexors are more open than that can of worms you opened when you asked your grandma how she was today, and my arms and abs feel like I’ve been on that crossfit diet. All the while I was just having fun.
Better than the local public pool
Really there’s not much I love more than river running on the bellyak which is something almost all of us can do whether it’s on class II or Class IV. I love many water sports, but the one that makes me giggle the most at the same time challenge me is bellyak. Aside from swimming, it’s the closest I have been to really being a part of the water.
The 2017 Ocoee River Race, sponsored by the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club, had over 130 racers this year. This is a challenging downriver race, requiring hundreds of small moves to stay in the fast water to make it down the 4+ mile Class III course. Team Bellyak represented with our own category and five racers this year.
How to Race the Ocoee
To post a fast time, it’s not so much about being fast in the rapids, as much as it is about having the smoothest line between the end of one rapid and the beginning of the next. Each rapid has multiple ways to run, with a fast ‘race line’ through every feature. Racers are released in one minute intervals to race against the clock.
Men’s Hand Paddle Race
Adam Masters – creator of Bellyak – raced twice: first in the men’s kayak hand paddle division (racing on the bellyak Frequency), and then in the bellyak category (racing on a Play 35). Here’s what he had to say about the experience:
“Every year I’ve raced in men’s hand paddle (as that is the closest category to bellyak), and I like to pretend to hurt people’s feelings, or at least make them realize we aren’t messing around. I’m wearing webbed gloves, and they are using large plastic hand paddles. I won the category in 2012, and since then we’ve created our own category. For the past three years I’ve come in right behind the hand paddle master of the southeast, Keith Sprinkle. Plus, I just want to race bellyak in as many categories as possible.
The Frequency is the fastest boat in the bellyak lineup, at 8’7″. The flip up skeg is designed to work in whitewater, and the Ocoee is a rocky, shallow river – a perfect place to put it to the test. The skeg allows the boat to stay on course in the squirrelly water between rapids, thus making it much more efficient to paddle quickly during the transitions. After racing back-to-back with and without the skeg, I’m convinced of it’s effectiveness for going fast in whitewater.
My first run was clean with only a few mistakes, I spun out in the middle of Broken Nose by overshooting the race line, and then got stuck between a big raft trip in Double Suck that I didn’t get past until half a mile later at Double Trouble. The next part of the race are the doldrums – a half mile of flatwater where dreams are crushed, reasons for living are questioned, and you come face to face with the truth of how much you did or did not train for this type of output. For whitewater paddlers, flatwater is akin to uphill paddling. For the past year I have been swimming, mountain unicycling, running and paddling more regularly than any year prior, and I felt as strong as I ever have during the race. I stayed fast all the way through to the end, and nailed the finish move at Powerhouse, which is deceptively tricky if you’re not prepared for where the finish line raft is.”
Adam finished in third place for Men’s Hand Paddle Kayak, with a time of 39:15.
The rest of Team Bellyak had start times 50 minutes after Adam (since he was the only one racing two categories). As soon as he was done with race lap number one and partially recovered from the lactic acid overdose and weird tracers he was seeing around everything, he jumped in the van and headed back to the top.
“I had strategically placed an ice cold Dr. Pepper in a glass bottle, along with some more traditional recovery foods like Skittles. Strategic soda and Skittles intake can be performance enhancing. There happened to be a car wreck on the two lane road back to the top, so I sat for nearly an hour blasting Rihanna on the half of a radio station that one gets in Copperhill, TN and cheering on the rest of Team Bellyak as they paddled by.”
Bellyak Category Race
There were five competitors in the bellyak category race – Adam Masters, Jamie MacLeod, Bill Wunderlich, Corey Topping and Sarah Neal. Adam and Jamie races on Play 35s, and the rest chose Play 45s. The race according to Adam:
“My second run was clean. I made no mistakes and stayed steady throughout the run. However, the absence of the skeg was very noticeable as I had to put substantially more energy to keep the boat on course. I was mildly delirious as the end of the run and grateful for all of Team Bellyak standing on the bridge above the finish line cheering for me!
For 2017, we decided to recognize ourselves and make our category as awesome as possible. Our prizemaster this year was Bill Wunderlich, who had assembled the best assortment of prizes for the Bellyak category.”
First Place: Adam MastersPrize: Webbed belt, Aquaseal, two pound bag of ‘America’ Skittles, 24 Ounce engraved beer stein.
Second: Jamie MacLeod Prize: $50 PF Changs gift card, resealable bag of original Skittles
Third: Corey Topping Prize: Large spray bottle of Rain X, two pound bag of ‘America’ Skittles
Time: 49:01 (missed takeout raft, had to paddle back upstream)
Fourth: Sarah Neal Prize: $25 Barnes and Noble Gift Card, two 12′ NRS Straps
Time: 49:02 (missed takeout raft, had to paddle back upstream)
Fifth: Bill Wunderlich Prize: ENO Twilights, 1986 Pro Tec Helmet, open bag of used skittles
Time: 51:02 (only his sixth trip ever down the Ocoee, and he will be in the medals next year)
We used to think dry suits were in the realm of the privileged and sponsored. Something you got when you graduated gnar school. A luxury for the fortunate, an unattainable holy grail of wintertime warmth for Southeastern boaters. What’s wrong with a farmer john wetsuit and a drytop? I mean, is there a difference between that and say, the 7Figure Immersion Research Dry Suit?
The bellyak roll is a fundamental skill for paddling whitewater. The main function of the bellyak roll is so that you are able to maintain connection with the boat and stay on line. This leads to a happier time on the water, gives a stronger sense of control which leads to confidence, which thus equals more fun. And he who has the most fun wins. We read that in a book. To help you along, here’s all you need to know to flip and dip your bellyak.
What Happens if I Flip Over?
Swims happen. Sometimes you lean left when the river wants you to lean right, and you find yourself in the water. The good news is that the bellyak is very easy to remount/self rescue. But let’s face it. It’s way cooler to roll. If you’re off your boat swimming, then you aren’t in control, and you aren’t having as much fun as you could have. The good news is you don’t have to spend $900 on clinics and hours of lake practice…the bellyak roll can be mastered by most people in a short amount of time, often in the first few hours of paddling.
As you feel yourself about to roll over, your instinct may be to grab the handles. Not so! Bear hug the boat like you would hug your favorite hound dog, wrapping your arms all the way around. The key is to create a solid connection via your arms and your chest to the bellyak.
It’s Mainly in the Legs
Once upside down you will be hugging the bellyak close and telling it secrets. Your legs will be in the water, because of gravity. Perform a quick scissor kick to maintain your momentum and get the boat fun side up. Imagine wrestling an alligator and trying to flip it over on it’s back. That’s what you want to do.
Back Upright: Almost There
Once your boat is back upright, you will be oriented as in the picture below. At this point you will want to swing your legs back on top and get back in position.
The bellyak roll from the back
Not Maintaining Momentum
The roll is something that happens as soon as you feel yourself flipping over. The key is to GO WITH the roll, and use that momentum to bring you all the way around. If you don’t maintain momentum you will lose connection with the boat and have to remount from the water. This works, but isn’t as quick. Or as fun. Like we mentioned.
Not Bearhugging Tight Enough
If you give your bellyak a half-hearted hug, it will leave you. Hug it like you mean it.
No Sense of Urgency
We see this all the time…people just flop off and don’t even try to get back on. Have some urgency. The safest place on the river – and also most fun – is on top of your bellyak, paddling in control. TIP: Imagine the water is filled with starving pyranhas and you have to get back upright, or else some fish is going to be wearing your skin. You don’t want that do you?